Much has been written about the religious right’s support for President Donald Trump, a serial philanderer, habitual liar, and admitted sexual assaulter of women. I’ve written about this topic myself and, like a lot of observers, I’ve tended to assume that the religious right is sticking with Trump because they’re hypocrites.
That might explain why the leaders of religious right groups remain glued to Trump, but what about the rank and file? Why does the average conservative evangelical remain unfazed by credible stories of Trump’s dalliances with porn stars and centerfold models?
Three university scholars put that question under a lens recently and reached a conclusion that causes the irony meter to explode: conservative Christians who voted for Trump were motivated largely by their quest to see the United States become a so-called Christian nation.
Andrew L. Whitehead, Joseph O. Baker, and Samuel L. Perry analyzed data from a Baylor University survey on religion. In a Washington Post column, the trio asserted, “The more someone believed the United States is—and should be—a Christian nation, the more likely they were to vote for Trump.” They added,
Many voters believed, and presumably still believe, that regardless of his personal piety (or lack thereof), Trump would defend what they saw as the country’s Christian heritage—and would help move the nation toward a distinctly Christian future. Ironically, Christian nationalism is focused on preserving a perceived Christian identity for America irrespective of the means by which such a project would be achieved. Hence, many white Christians believe Trump may be an effective instrument in God’s plan for America, even if he is not particularly religious himself.
There’s a lot to say about this. For starters, it appears to be a case of religious right groups desperately trying to make a square peg fit into a round hole. It takes some heavy-duty mental gymnastics to seriously accept the idea that Trump is the prophet of a Christian nation. He’d be more likely to serve as the guru of a free-love commune.
More to the point, the quest for an officially Christian America, while long-running, is a fool’s errand. There are many reasons why this is true, but I’ll highlight just three here.
1. No one—most notably Christians themselves—agrees on what a “Christian nation” would look like. Let’s say we all fell into a time warp and woke up tomorrow in a country that had never adopted the First Amendment and its policy of separation of church and state. Our leaders announce that we are now officially a Christian nation—and our established church is the United Church of Christ (UCC).
Religious right leaders Jerry Falwell Jr., James Dobson, and Tony Perkins are delirious with joy, right? Well, not exactly. If you’re not familiar with it, the United Church of Christ is considered to be the most liberal of the country’s Christian denominations. No bootstrap capitalist, their Jesus flirts with socialism. He’s pro-LGBTQ rights and supports a woman’s right to choose abortion.
American Christianity runs a spectrum from very liberal to very conservative and includes everything in between. When the religious right talks about a Christian nation, they don’t mean the UCC’s version of Christianity; they mean a fundamentalist version of that faith that incorporates the Republican Party platform as a tenet of faith.
Yet even the right-wingers can’t agree on doctrine. Christian Reconstructionists, a small but scary cohort of unrepentant theocrats who openly yearn for a society based on the legal code of the Old Testament—yep, they’d stone you for being gay, having premarital sex, and taking God’s name in vain, among other things—have splintered into several competing factions because they can’t agree on which version of Christianity ought to be established by law.
2. Long-term trends are not cutting the theocrats’ way. In 1950 more than 90 percent of the US population identified as Christian. The figure is now around 70 percent, and it keeps dropping.
According to the Pew Research Center, the number of Americans who say they are religiously unaffiliated has reached 56 million. These “nones” now outnumber both Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants. While most nones don’t identify as atheist, agnostic, or humanist, they’re equally reluctant to embrace a Christian label. If this faction keeps growing—and most scholars believe it will—it’ll be awfully difficult to impose a Christian nati
3. Most Americans really don’t want to live in the religious right’s “Christian nation.” We have a model for the concept in action. In the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth, conservative Christian groups were at the zenith of their power. What did they do with it? Most of them didn’t advocate for the poor and needy as Jesus recommended. Rather, they censored books, magazines, and stage plays (and later films). They curbed access to birth control in some states, a policy that wasn’t lifted until 1965. They supported laws making consensual same-sex relationships illegal. They demanded “blue laws” to curb retail activity on Sunday. They saturated public schools with their version of faith and in some states made it illegal to teach evolution. Most of them were content to live in a society that was male-dominated, blatantly anti-Semitic, and shot through with racism.
Most Americans likely think well of Christianity, but that doesn’t mean they’re eager to go back to the bad old days of religious oppression, majority rule, and neo-Puritan busybodies meddling in their personal lives.
Beyond these three reasons, the most glaring defect of the Christian nation scheme is blindingly obvious to anyone with sense: Trump is highly unlikely to establish it given his own deficit in the morals department. The religious right has insisted for years that character counts. Yes, it does—and that principle damns Trump.
None of this means that the religious right won’t keep trying to drag us to their fundamentalist utopia. With Trump’s help, they may get closer than a lot of us would care to go. But in the end, Trump’s troops who believe America is or should be officially Christian are chasing a chimera. A truly Christian nation can never exist.
Sensible people have known that for a long time. John Leland, a fiery Baptist cleric and supporter of church-state separation in the post-revolutionary period, once observed, “The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever.”
Leland holds a unique distinction in US history: he helped end officially established Christian churches in three states—Virginia, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. He knows a few things about this issue. Perhaps the religious right should listen to him.